First things first: Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which runs Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, has nothing to do with Halloween.
“There’s no candy, no trick-or-treating,” said Yolanda Machado, the Latina voice behind the Los Angeles-based website Sassy Mama in LA. She describes the annual fall celebration not as a big party, but rather an intimate gathering.
Gabriela Martinez, curator of education for the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, said the millennias-old Mexican tradition dates back to the indigenous people of Meso-America, such as the Aztecs, who lived in the Valley of Mexico.
“It was originally tied to harvest,” Martinez said, “and when the bounty of harvest came in, a portion was dedicated to the ancestors who were believed to return [at this time].”
“Indigenous people believed life and death were one big cycle so people never really went away, they just went to inhabit a different place,” Martinez said.
On Dia de los Muertos, the thin veil separating the living from the departed is believed to lift and loved ones are able to commune in spirit.
“It wasn’t seen as a scary thing, and it’s still not seen as a scary thing,” Martinez said. “It’s about commemorating ancestors, being aware of those who came before us … and passing on family stories, or ancient stories, to the next generation to continue the legacy.”
Machado said she started observing the tradition when her young daughter became curious about where her late great-grandfather had gone and if he was happy.
“I started celebrating at home as a way for her to connect with that side of our family and our history,” Machado said.
“The way we do it is we put up a little altar near the kitchen ... a couple of candles, we make marigold paper flowers and sugar skulls and I have a few [Dia de los Muertos] figurines,” said Machado. “I place them around and then we put up pictures of my grandfather and uncle who have passed away, and one of my cats. Pets are honored too, and my daughter always makes sure we put the cat’s picture up.”
The altars and their offerings, or ofrendas, are highly personalized and defined with items, food and drinks that were favored by those who have passed. It is not about mourning; it is a remembrance, a celebration of life, and a reflection on mortality.
“I might put out a soccer ball or baseball for my grandfather, who loved playing sports,” Machado said.
Machado said altars often feature sweet pan de muertos (bread of the dead), along with traditional elements including: chocolate atole (Mexican hot chocolate), iced sugar skulls, colorful cut papel picado (tissue paper banners) and marigolds (believed to guide spirits to the altars with their bright color and scent).
Designs can range from simple to lavish.
“The big parties are the community events they hold at cemeteries like Hollywood Forever,” Machado said, “…or places like Olvera Street” in downtown L.A., which can include contests, face painting, live music and plenty of food.
Last year, Machado said she saw Day of the Dead altars dedicated to Bowie and Prince. “For Prince they decorated with purple flowers and a guitar. It’s beautiful to look at.”
Dia de los Muertos gatherings
Here are a few Dia de los Muertos events happening in and around Los Angeles. If you know of one that we overlooked, please share it online at latimes.com/home
Hollywood Forever Cemetery presents its 18th annual Dia de los Muertos festival, The Legacy of Posada, noon to midnight on Saturday, Oct. 28. $20. ladayofthedead.com
Olvera Street is in the midst of the nine-day-long Dia de los Muertos Festival, running through Nov. 2. Free. olveraevents.com/day-of-the-dead-olvera-street
Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) presents a free Dia dia los Muertos Family Festival, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, and an art exhibit of altars and more through Nov. 19. Museum admission is $10. molaa.org